The last in the series revisiting classic albums and old favourites.
When Souad Massi’s second album Deb (Heartbroken) was released in 2003 it immediately became my favourite album of the new century and was played constantly in our house. Almost a decade later it’s never far from the CD player. Despite the subsequent release of three perfectly good albums this is the one which still sounds the freshest and remains the high watermark of her career up to now.
Souad Massi was born in Algiers in 1972. As a teenager she flirted with flamenco before joining a political rock band called Atakor. Then in 1999 she left Algeria to travel to France and settled in Paris where she has remained ever since. She signed with Island Records and made her debut album Raoui in 2001. The first album was a sprawling mix of different styles and showed great promise but the release of her next album Deb was a huge leap forward. On Deb she sings in both Arabic and French and plays acoustic guitar backed by a large group of musicians with flamenco guitars, oud, violins, flutes, and various kinds of percussion including tabla and derbouka.
The songs are all originals by Massi and they are concerned with themes of love and loss and with exile and memory. Despite the sombre note this may strike, these songs are also full of gorgeous melodies, uplifting singing and great musicianship. Massi does lively and exuberant just as well as she does wistful and sad. There’s a real mix of musical cultures and sounds too which sways from one style to another (sometimes within the same song) and manages to encompass bursts of flamenco, French and Algerian pop, string quartets, tango and waltz. The album as a whole has no real weaknesses and is totally irresistible.
It’s hard to pin down highlights on Deb as everything is successful on its own terms but apart from the wonderfully indescribable title song there are two central tracks which are crucial. They are ‘Yemma’ (Mummy, I Lie to You) which opens with a typically yearning vocal and guitar from Massi then adds oud, percussion and violin, and the following track ‘Yawlidi’ (My Little Boy) which fades in with call and response vocals then drives along with a wonderful rhythm and melody which sounds almost like Congolese rumba. Her recent albums have been slightly more subdued and she hasn’t quite reached the sustained heights of Deb again. But the live concert album Acoustic, recorded in Alsace in 2007, is well worth seeking out especially in its DVD version.